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Occasional Letters: In Defence of Jephthah

D Newell, Glasgow

I recall reading about an instructor who held up in front of his class a large sheet of white paper on which he had drawn a single black spot. Asked what they saw, his students all promptly noticed the spot, but none commented on the surrounding expanse of unblemished white sheet. We are so quick to detect flaws. Many Bible characters get a bad press because of a specific failure: Jacob was deceptive, Moses was outspoken, Eli was indulgent, Peter was impetuous. Occasionally the slip seems to become embellished beyond the details of the Biblical record. I suppose that, among the figures in the book of Judges, few have been lambasted more than Jephthah. He was, so goes the myth, a barbarian living on the east side of the Jordan, accustomed to leading a band of savage brigands and therefore likely to assimilate the pagan culture around him. It is hardly surprising that such a man descended to the terrible crime of offering his daughter as a human sacrifice.

Trouble is, the Biblical evidence flies in the face of this popular impression. Without debating the exact nature of his vow (which has been done effectively by Keil & Delitzsch, Andrew Fausset, Leon Wood, Gleason Archer, and Cyril Barber) I want simply to put the case for Jephthah as an outstandingly godly man. And if I had to invite only one person into the witness box in his defence, it would be (of all people) his daughter. Let's see what we can learn about the man by looking at the child because, let's face it, a child is the frankest testimony to the success or failure of a parent. David, who did so well when fleeing for his life from Saul, lost his edge when settled comfortably in the security of kingship. Amnon, Absalom, Adonijah, even the older Solomon – none of these are a great credit to their father. But Jephthah's daughter is different. The story is well known. Called to deliver Israel from the depredations of their vicious Ammonite neighbours, he rose to his task with wisdom and determination, first of all seeking a negotiated peace on the basis of Israel's historical possession of the land (the facts of which, we discover, he knew well), and when this was rejected, led the nation in a stirring and victorious campaign against their enemies. After the battle he returned home:

"And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back. And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed" (Judg 11.34-39).

We should take careful note of his daughter's reaction to the news. First of all, she demonstrated respect, calling her parent not "Jephthah", but "My father". Of course, the ancient East maintained a careful protocol in family interactions so that the domestic over-familiarity and impudence so common in the modern West were virtually unknown. But this is in line with God's instructions to His people in both testaments: "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" (Ex 20.12); "Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord" (Col 3.20); "let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God" (1 Tim 5.4). Young people who cannot show respect to their own parents are unlikely to show it to anyone else. It is sad when children raised in Christian homes ape the world in displaying contempt for their elders.

The next feature, although not surprising in the light of the previous quality, is her reverence for God. Her words ("thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord") indicate an intelligent veneration for the God of Israel, to whom she refers by His special name of Jehovah. But this only echoes her father's language. The first time he speaks in the chapter he brings in God (11.9) and, as the narrative puts it, "uttered all his words before the Lord in Mizpeh" (11.11). Seven times in chapters 11 and 12 the name of the Lord is on his lips. Where but from her father could she have learned to hold the God of Israel in such high esteem? How important is parental training!

She also exhibited a remarkably mature recognition of God's ways. Why had the Ammonites had been defeated? It was because "the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies". She credits victory neither to Jephthah's tactics nor to the military superiority of Israel but to the hand of God. In this she again followed in her father's footsteps, for his initial response to the nation's call for help was to confess total dependence on the Lord: "If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head?" (11.9). Paul's instruction to Timothy to "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection" (1 Tim 2.11) is sometimes read so as to emphasise the words "silence" and "subjection", but equally important is the verb "learn". The apostle has the highest view of women, assuming them capable of benefiting just as much as the males from the public exposition of Scripture. If they are to become godly wives and mothers the younger women must attend the teaching meetings of the assembly.

Then again, there is her personal resignation. Where we might have expected resentment, bitterness, or recrimination, we find a spirit of submissiveness. Never does she lose her respect for her father, and blames neither him nor God for her predicament. How many of the Lord's people, finding themselves in grievous circumstances not of their own making, have had to learn to surrender to God's ways with them, however inexplicable?

Finally, we should mark her reliability. She requested a period of two months before Jephthah carried out his vow to dedicate her to the Lord so that she could "go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows" (11.37). This he granted in the confidence that her promise to return would be fulfilled. So it was, for the man knew his daughter. "He sent her away for two months: and…at the end of two months…she returned unto her father". She made no attempt to escape, but throughout the entire episode acted with the utmost meekness and obedience. Although an only child, she certainly wasn't spoiled.

The story has some remarkable echoes of Genesis 22 (the grief-stricken parent and the loyal child), but my point is that this marvellous daughter is a standing answer to those who dismiss Jephthah as a half-civilized brute who was so ignorant of God's law that he perpetrated an act of human sacrifice. Her behaviour testifies to a godly upbringing, built upon an informed and submissive confidence in the God of Israel. No wonder Jephthah appears in Hebrews 11 as a model of faith!

To be continued.


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